SBJ/September 10 - 16, 2007/SBJ In Depth

Right place, right team

SportSouth had a camera crew embedded with Appalachian State University’s football team since Aug. 1 and planned to air a 30-minute reality show on the team’s training camp as part of its “Under the Lights” series later this month. Then the Mountaineers won at Michigan on Sept. 1.

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Within an hour after the upset, senior producer Steve Becker — coincidentally a Michigan graduate — was outside Michigan Stadium, sitting on a camera case, contemplating what his crew had just captured. Already, he had received an e-mail from SportSouth general manager Jeff Genthner saying that the show would be expanded to an hour.

This had to be video gold for a network that reaches 9 million homes in a six-state footprint through the Southeast. Talk about being in the right place at the right time. SportSouth’s cameras traveled with the team from Boone, N.C. They were on the team’s chartered flight out of Johnson City, Tenn. And they rode the team bus to the stadium. Cameras were running inside the Appalachian State locker room before the game, at halftime and again after the shocking win. The crew spent three to four days a week with the team through training camp and even went to class with some of the players.

“We captured lightning in a bottle,” Becker said. “My mind was racing in so many different directions after the game. My alma mater had just been part of the biggest upset in college football, but the producer side of me was thinking we had just documented history. Now we get to tell the whole story of everything that led up to this game.”

“Under the Lights: Appalachian State football — Date with Destiny” will debut at 10 p.m. Saturday on SportSouth, with another showing scheduled for 8 p.m. Sunday. Subsequent showings will follow on SportSouth, FSN and likely the Big Ten Network, all of which are News Corp. networks.

The wheels are already turning in Genthner’s mind about a keepsake DVD.

“It’s on the drawing board,” he said. “I don’t think we’d have trouble selling it.”

The aftermath of Appalachian State’s shocking 34-32 win at Michigan was felt from Ann Arbor to Boone, the Mountaineers’ home in the northwest corner of North Carolina.

Many stores had sold out their inventory of Appalachian State apparel by Tuesday of last week, just three days after the game, said Lewis Hardy, president of Licensing Resource Group, the licensing agent for the school. One store took an order of 250 shirts from a Michigan State alumni association, and orders from Columbus, Ohio, home to Michigan’s fiercest football rival, have been brisk as stores that service Ohio State fans look for Appalachian State inventory.

The upset began a retail spree at Appalachian State
that surpassed its national title years.

“Stores are having record days,” Hardy said.

Hardy said demand has exceeded that from Appalachian State’s consecutive Division I-AA national championships.

“We won’t have a report on royalties until October, but early indications are that this is the national championship and then some,” Hardy said. “The Michigan game is bigger” because more orders are coming from around the country.

Samantha Stevens, director of marketing and licensing at Appalachian State, said one Michigan State group has requested permission to put the Mountaineers’ mark on a billboard as part of a congratulatory message.

Of the printers who regularly produce Appalachian State apparel, just one sought permission before the game to produce a T-shirt with the score on it. That printer, based in Raleigh, about three hours from the school, had shirts in Boone by 8 p.m. that night, Stevens said.

Sports Illustrated, which put Appalachian State on its cover last week, also called the school’s bookstore and asked for space to sell SI cover merchandise.

Of course, SportSouth never had any idea that its monthlong stay with the Mountaineers would culminate with a win at Michigan. Becker and producer Ray Goodrich simply had designs on a good story.

SportSouth periodically follows college teams as part of its “Under the Lights” series, a documentary-style reality show that typically chronicles a team’s preparation for a game. Appalachian State’s training camp was chosen because SportSouth had recently signed a deal with the Southern Conference to televise football, basketball and other sports. The Mountaineers offered full access, and their status as two-time national champs in the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly I-AA) added to the story.

But when Appalachian State did the unthinkable, becoming the first I-AA team to beat a ranked I-A team, No. 5 Michigan, the show took on a whole new life.

“Viewers are going to get to know these guys,” Goodrich said. “We’ve had them miked from the day they reported for camp to the day they went to class to the trip to Michigan. We earmarked several players that we’d really get to know and many of those players played integral roles in the game. It sets you up so that you’re really caring about these guys.”

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